'We lost a lot of good men'

LAST month, the Journal marked 90 years of the RAF by examining the organisation's long association with Newmarket. The story prompted reader Norman Didwell, a veteran of 99 Squadron, to contact reporter Robert Andrews with his memories.

BORN in Gloucestershire, Norman Didwell was brought up in London and joined the RAF at the age of 18.

Shortly after turning 19, he was posted to Newmarket, where he spent the next 18 months of his service career.

"I arrived at Rowley Mile on September 1, 1939, just before the start of the Second World War," he recalls.

"We all knew there was a war coming – some people came to the airfield by plane, others by coach."

Mr Didwell served as part of the ground crew, working on Wellington bombers flying out of the airfield.

During the first week of the conflict, he can remember air crews sleeping in the grandstands and cooking with portable kits as they were not allowed to use the facilities at the racecourse.

He still has service records dating back to July 11, 1940 when seven aircraft from RAF Newmarket took off from the heath on a mission to the Texel Aerodrome in Holland.

The bombers left at 10pm and reached their targets just after midnight, hitting several anti-aircraft guns and searchlights.

But many air crews never made it home.

"We lost a lot of good men during those missions," said Mr Didwell, who now lives in Leighton Buzzard and is due to celebrate his 88th birthday next month.

Despite such a heavy sacrifice, Mr Didwell still has many good memories of his time at the airfield – he got to serve with a "wonderful bunch of men" and his career saw him serve in both Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Former members of 99 Squadron still meet each year to talk about their days in Newmarket – a tradition which has been running since 1978.

This year's meeting is at the Heath Court Hotel in September but with Mr Didwell one of only three surviving RAF Newmarket personnel, he fears the veterans who lost their lives could go unremembered.

"Those who can make it still come down to Newmarket each year for the reunion but we are getting older now and some of the others can't make the journey," he said.

"It would be really sad if those who lost their lives were forgotten."

Today, 99 Squadron is based at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire and operates in the Middle East providing logistical support to allied forces in Iraq and Afganistan.

l Do you have any memories of the Royal Air Force in Newmarket? Call Robert Andrews on 01638 564105 or email robert.andrews@